Archive for September, 2005

Abandoning History

Sunday, September 25th, 2005

A colleague and I are speaking at a conference in London at the end of October (on my birthday in fact). The conference is called ‘New Views’ and our paper, ‘Abandoning History’ is a case study looking at how we teach design history to graphic design students.
It’s shaping up okay and I’ll maybe post some excerpts up here nearer the time. The basic premise is that when graphic design started being taught as a degree subject all that happened to give it ‘academic legitimacy’ was courses imported design history staff to show a few slides of the great and the good, give some lectures on historical aretfacts, and then demand a few essays.
Hardly surprising that this part of the course is traditionally hated by everyone concerned.

So we’re proposing a few things. Firstly, that we abandon the idea of history as canons, heroes and artefacts and instead adopt what I’ve called ‘history-less history’ (or a Marxist view of history to be more precise – though I’ve found using the ‘M’ word seems to turn people off for some reason) which looks at history as a series of causes and effects with particular emphasis on the systems of production and consumption of design. This allows us to bring in social studies, cultural studies, psychology, audience studies, politics and issues that are often ignored: ethics and human ecology.

The second thing we’re proposing is that historical and critical studies is no longer taught by part-timers on hourly contracts, as is so often the case in the UK. The only result of this is that the subject never gets developed, staff have no commitment to their students’ ongoing progress (through no fault of their own) and studio staff and students naturally see it as a completely separate aspect of the course. If it’s so unimportant that staff are paid by the hour and only during term-time, it’s obviously not important at all. Design degrees need full-time H&CS staff who are available to the students at all times and seen in and around the studio. Sadly this rarely happens. No wonder students are still bored stiff with slide shows and ‘survey’ courses that are completely irrelevant to them.

My first draft of the paper was over 9,000 words long and I hadn’t even got to the case study! But there’s a lot to say and a lot of evidence to present. It would make an interesting book, that’s for sure. So last week I cut it down dramatically and it’s around 5,000 words now with the case studies and conclusion to add on. Next week we’re going to interview a few students for some quotations to illustrate our points and then we have to put it to bed, so to speak.

Anyway, last week while I was struggling with how to explain my model for a production-consumption approach to design history I stumbled upon the diagram below. Actually, I’d seen this last year and remembered at the time how I thought it closely resembled what I was trying to do. Then I promptly forgot about it!
Now it’s going in the paper and, as I’ve just spent an hour in OmniGraffle trying to redraw it I thought I’d post it here for those who are interested. Click on the thumbnail to open the full version.
I think it’s rather interesting and it shows the interconnectedness of different aspects of the curriculum. I’m going to try to update it and add some examples (for instance, educating students about how choices about ink and paper have a huge effect on the environment, discussions of the ethics of branding and globalisation etc). I’m going to give a version of this out to first years in a couple of weeks to help explain what we mean by ‘design history’.

Source: ‘Design History and the History of Design’ by John Walker (1989) London: Pluto Press

What’s in a name?

Friday, September 23rd, 2005

From the BBC News web site

Jordan, K’tee, Kloe and Bobbi-Jo are all names to make some teachers’ hearts sink, apparently.

Teachers have confessed to making snap judgements about children from their names on the register.
In a light-hearted debate on a teachers’ website, they have listed the names they associate with problematic and charming pupils.

Poppys are seen as hyperactive, Kayleighs as a pain and Ryans as hard work, according to chat on the website of the Times Educational Supplement.

Kyle, Liam, Wayne, Charmaine and Charlie are among the names teachers say they associate with problem children.

One teacher wrote: “I went through my new class list and mentally circled the ones I thought would be difficult. I reckon I have a 75% hit rate…”

Good list
Kate, Gregory, Sean, Charlotte, Jamie, Daniel, Lucy, Isobel, Ben, Sam, Harpreet, Imran, Asam, Alice and Joseph

According to the website, names which get a negative response from teacher include those with hyphens, like Bobbi-Jo, ordinary names with unusual spellings such as Kloe or K’tee, Kristopher, Jayne, Gyaike and Chevaughn, plus the various spellings of Jordon.

Names which teachers associate with delightful children include Kate, Gregory, Sean, Charlotte, Jamie, Daniel, Lucy, Isobel, Ben, Sam, Harpreet, Imran, Asam, Alice and Joseph.

However, perhaps proving that one’s response to a name is dependent on one’s personal experience, many names appear on both lists.

Bad list
Bobbi-Jo, Kloe, K’tee, Kristopher, Jayne, Wayne, Charlie, Liam, Ryan

The debate has sparked a row with parents chatting on another website,
Some were appalled, complaining that children were being labelled and pre-judged before they had even stepped inside a classroom.

One mother said she had complained to the Department for Education and Skills, saying: “I and many other parents are disgusted by the attitudes of the teachers on the forum.

“I realise this is a small number of teachers, but they have taken time out of their day to post these comments and I presume… they actually mean what they are saying.”

But others on the site sympathised with the teachers, saying they understood how if you had had a bad experience with a child, their name would continue to have bad associations for you.

Wallace and Grommet

Thursday, September 22nd, 2005

When I saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory recently the trailers went down a storm: King Kong looked excellent, Harry Potter was worth a squizz, but the audience really came alive for Wallace and Grommet’s ‘Curse of the Were-Rabbit’. The trailer had more laughs than the whole of Charlie.

There’s an ‘exclusive’ clip over at the BBC site – worth a look. Watch out for the policeman’s line: maybe it says something about me but I was laughing like a drain (whatever that means)

Very British, very dark, and very cheesy (as in ‘Wensleydale: Crackin’ Cheese, Grommit!’). Can’t wait to see this.

(Interesting fact: I used to live next to Wensleydale – a beautiful part of the world and one of the finest, crumbliest cheeses you could ever hope for. Lovely on fresh crusty bread with a bit of pickle… Now there’s an idea…)

Brazil’s double standards?

Saturday, September 17th, 2005

Talking of the shooting of an innocent Brazilian in London reminds me of a point that had me seething over the summer.

As shameful as the shooting was (though hardly unexpected given the huge pressure on people to get results), the reaction of the Brazilian government was disgraceful. As Private Eye pointed out, it took arond 30 hours for them to issue a statement condemning the shooting – a happy coincidence as 30 was the number of innocent Brazilians shot by their own police force only days earlier.

This led to quips when Brazil sent over representatives to talk to London police about the shooting that they were not so much after evidence but possibly offering tips for next time…


Saturday, September 17th, 2005

There’s an interesting article in the current edition of The Fortean Times (a magazine I used to do illustrations for, and quite an entertaining read) about the conspiracy theories surrounding the 7/7 London bombings.
One of the best bits is a comment by the article’s writer that it isn’t stupid for people to believe in conspiracies, giving a fairly long list of previous events that have turned out to have been the handiwork of the authorities in different countries, including the UK. (The sinking of The Rainbow Warrior is a good example, with the French being the culprits there, and Noam Chomsky gives a good account of US and UK activities in other countries in Hegemony or Survival).

But ultimately each of the various 7/7 conspiracies is shown in the article to be flawed. Although it doesn’t mention the shooting of the Brazilian on the London Underground two weeks later, the subsequent distress of much-quoted ‘eye witnesses’ (who described the victim as wearing a padded jacket with wires trailing from it, and leaping over ticket barriers only to see photographs of his body shoowing quite clearly that he was wearing summer clothing and hear that he used his ‘Oyster’ card to calmly get through the barriers, and that it was the poliec who jumped over the barriers, not him), show that not only does the rumour mill take over but that we quite literally can’t believe our own eyes. Our brain seems to fit our observations together into a narrative that makes sense. We see someone jumping over a barrier, we remember reports of what the 7/7 bombers were wearing, we see someone get shot – consequently we add the details from one memory to another and produce a version of events that makes sense.

Mark Whitby said: “I was sitting on the train… I heard a load of noise, people saying, ‘Get out, get down’.
“I saw an Asian guy. He ran on to the train, he was hotly pursued by three plain clothes officers, one of them was wielding a black handgun.
“He half tripped… they pushed him to the floor and basically unloaded five shots into him,” he told BBC News 24.
“As [the suspect] got onto the train I looked at his face, he looked sort of left and right, but he basically looked like a cornered rabbit, a cornered fox.
“He looked absolutely petrified and then he sort of tripped, but they were hotly pursuing him, [they] couldn’t have been any more than two or three feet behind him at this time and he half tripped and was half pushed to the floor and the policeman nearest to me had the black automatic pistol in his left hand.
“He held it down to the guy and unloaded five shots into him.
“He [the suspect] had a baseball cap on and quite a sort of thickish coat – it was a coat you’d wear in winter, sort of like a padded jacket.
“He might have had something concealed under there, I don’t know. But it looked sort of out of place with the sort of weather we’ve been having, the sort of hot humid weather.
“He was largely built, he was quite a chubby sort of guy”

It doesn’t help that the media takes the stories and prints them without question. On 7/7 I swapped channels to see how the BBC, ITV and Fox News were covering it. Fox was clearly getting its coverage and info via Sky, Murdoch’s satellite service in the UK, but adding comment from studio guests and reporters in London via phone. Fox’s coverage was awful with the descriptions of the city bearing little relationship to the truth and seeming to come more from a Dickensian depiction of the place than any other. Bloomsbury, the area of town where the bus blew up, was described in overly romantic terms, for example, more because of its historic associations than its present situation.

The thing that marked out the BBC’s coverage from that of other stations was that while other agencies were reporting everything – every rumour, every estimated death toll – the BBC only reported official sources. This meant that ITV and Fox were reporting estimated deaths of between 30 and 50 (only guesses because no one had even reached the body-strewn carriages underground at the time), while the BBC reported one confirmed death and several injuries. After the event the BBC was criticised for being the mouthpiece of officialdom but to my mind what it showed was that when news agencies report rumour and gossip as fact, they soon become facts. Take the ‘discovery’ of WMD in Iraq that recent polls showed a large proportion of US citizens to believe had happened, even though none have been found. But if you remember, there were constant reports during the Iraq war of things being found (that later, but less publicly, turned out to be harmless) and images of reporters and soldiers donning chemical suits.

It’s a difficult line to draw for the BBC because on the one hand – as here – being conservative with your reporting means that while you’re less sensational than other channels you end up telling the truth in the long run. But on the other, when you make such a thing of reporting official figures you’re at the mercy of what those in charge want to release. And there’s the conspiracy thing again…

When I was stuck in London on 21 July after the second attempted bombing there was little information, and most people were unconcerned. But I did hear people talking on the streets about what was happening. Most of what I heard was obviously untrue, but they were citing reliable sources such as ‘a guy I know’ and ‘some woman’. This was less than an hour after we’d been kicked off the underground. I rang home and spoke to a friend who was staying with me and she was watching it on TV and although she knew a bit more than I did (that there’d been an incident) she knew nothing more than that. Eventually I used my Palm Treo to access the internet and read the Guardian blog which carries an unedited feed of information that’s coming into the paper’s news desk. There were a few more ‘facts’ on there but essentially it seemed the events were less dramatic than 7/7. That didn’t stop the stories I could hear from those around me, however. And I knew that it was those stories which would probably be reported as news on TV because the sad fact is that in an age of rolling news, when you have to fill your airtime with nothing but specualtion (laughably prefaced with the words ‘It’s dangerous to speculate at this time but…’) then rumours are all you’ve got.

(The question that occurs to me, however, is why did I implicitly trust the Guardian’s website more than I trusted any other source? One of the paper’s mottos is ‘Speech is free, but facts are sacred’, if that’s anything to go by).

Anyway, back to the Fortean Times. It carries an image from a recent Minsitry of Defence exhibition of WW2 paintings. It’s ‘Premonition’ painted in the 1930s by German exile Walter Nessler. It showed, with remarkable foresight, the effects of the blitz on London, years before it happened. (The example above is poor quality – the actual painting is remarkably detailed).
But the reason people are looking at it again is that the painting makes a great play of the city’s public transport and two buses are depicted with numbers: 30 is the number of the bus that was blown up and the other ’77’ is the date of the bombing (the painting even has a blemish between the numerals making it look like 7.7). It makes you think for a minute, but there’s a boxout near the painting in the magazine about the numerology of the 7/7 bombings and how the number 7 crops up so frequently (7/7/2005, for example contains three sevens: 2+0+0+5 being the third). But all these permutations, like the accompanying ones for 9/11 are quite ludicrous as they depend on some odd combinations of numbers and mathematical trickery. Like the eyewitnesses to the shooting mentioned above, all they prove is that the human mind likes patterns and rationality, even if the result is something far from rational.

Yahoo lands Chinese journalist in prison

Wednesday, September 14th, 2005

From The Guardian, George Monbiot writes:

“In April, Shi Tao, a journalist working for a Chinese newspaper, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “providing state secrets to foreign entities”. He had passed details of a censorship order to the Asia Democracy Forum and the website Democracy News.

The pressure group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) was mystified by the ease with which Mr Tao had been caught. He had sent the message through an anonymous Yahoo! account. But the police had gone straight to his offices and picked him up. How did they know who he was?
Last week RSF obtained a translation of the verdict, and there they found the answer. Mr Tao’s account information was “furnished by Yahoo Holdings”. Yahoo!, the document says, gave the government his telephone number and the address of his office.”

Read the full article

Quark’s new identity is old…

Monday, September 12th, 2005

I gather I’m not the only one to spot this but in case you hadn’t heard, Quark today revealed a new identity which bears a striking resemblance to one already happily being used…

Spot the difference:

The middle bit (the counter if you want to be technical) is slightly different but that’s about it.
It’s interesting that the stylised letter is a ‘Q’ in one and an ‘A’ in another.

Technical difficulties

Monday, September 5th, 2005

Along with my podcast feed not appearing to work properly (though that’s most likely my fault) it seems that some of my past posts are springing zombie-like from the grave and being seen as ‘new’ in my newsreader. This is extremely annoying so apologies – I’m looking into what might be causing the problem.

Lots of new posts to upload soon – I’ve been busy with the book and a conference paper but have a few things saved up, so stay tuned!

CRAP generator

Friday, September 2nd, 2005

With the new academic year approaching I thought a tool to help generate comments on students’ work might be useful.
Introducing the Critical Response to Art Projects auto-comment generator!

You should see the flash file below – a bit small here, but if you download the standalone it’ll work full screen. (The ‘quit’ button only works in the standalone version)

Download Mac standalone
Download PC standalone